Sean Jeffrey McKenna died in the afternoon of Sunday, 20 October 2019 after a fall in his yard in Salem, NH. He passed away shortly thereafter at Holy Family Hospital in Methuen, MA. He was predeceased by his mother Constance (Bilodeau) McKenna of Pawtucket, RI, by his father Leo McKenna of Pawtucket, RI, and by his nephew Christopher Foss of Strafford, NH. He is survived by his wife of 43 years, Wendy Heckman of Salem, NH; his children, Heather Heckman- McKenna and son-in-law William Erlandson of Columbia, MO, and Hannah Heckman-McKenna of Salem, NH; by his five siblings and their partners: Deborah Hanna and her husband Alan of Andover, NH; Tod McKenna and his wife Maria of Derry, NH; Matthew McKenna and his wife Laurel of Exeter, RI; Lisette Jenkins of Pawtucket, RI; Lee Ann McKenna of North Chatham, MA; by his sister-in-law Christina Foss and her two sons Timothy and Zachariah of Strafford, NH. He also leaves behind countless cherished nieces, nephews, cousins, and dear friends.
Sean was born on 16 June 1953 in Providence, Rhode Island, the second child of Constance and Leo McKenna. After attending Moses Brown preparatory school, a school he credited with changing the course of his life to one of learning and science, Sean earned an ScB in physics from Brown University and a PhD in theoretical astrophysics from The Ohio State University. He worked as a research scientist for Battelle Memorial Institute (1980-1982), for Aquidneck Data Corporation (1982-1983), and he spent his final 36 years of employment working on GPS and space programs for MITRE (MIT Research Labs) and the Department of Defense. He had recently been engaged with work on what he referred to as the interesting puzzles of quantum computing.
Sean wrote at least eleven unclassified articles, ranging from research seeking extraterrestrial life to laser radar to the very stars themselves. His at least 15 unclassified patents include inventions spanning depth-gauging vision systems to early detection systems for contamination events to unified search functions.
Sean was deeply inquisitive. He loved the stars and space and discovery, and sought to uncover boundless fascinating mysteries offered by science. He was endlessly curious, and found sincere joy in seeking and learning, and in teaching and mentoring others. He regularly went to local schools to share his wonder of the universe. Sean’s grandniece, Sara (daughter of his niece and nephew Nursel and Tod), wanted to learn about the stars; Sean asked them to join the family up in Nova Scotia so he could show Sara the night sky. (Some of our favorite times were lying quietly on lawns watching the rotating sea of stars. The Perseids meteor shower, immediately before Wendy’s birthday, was always a special favorite.)
He showed his love for his family in many ways. He made the best home fries and potato pancakes. His love language included making these cherished foods for his family. He also made “Sean’s famous hamburgers,” essentially giant round meatballs burned to an unpleasantly crunchy char on the outside and raw and cool in the middle. These were not cherished, but his efforts sure were. Sean was a devoted ice hockey and soccer coach to his daughters, often coaching 2-4 teams at a time. Despite his 70-80 hour work weeks, when Sean wasn’t traveling for work, immediately upon pulling into the driveway, he would change clothes and join Heather outside to play roller hockey in the driveway or work on soccer skills in the backyard. Despite some differing interests with his younger daughter, Sean always made a point to be there and support her whenever possible. Hannah dropped ice hockey to pursue horseback riding when she was thirteen and Sean was there to watch as often as he could, even though he couldn’t be directly involved as he was with hockey and soccer. When asked why Sean made it a point to watch Hannah’s horseback riding lessons every day he wasn’t traveling for work, he answered, “Because I get to see you smile.” He loved watching Hannah ride, strongly encouraged her pursuit of art, and attended nearly all of her theatrical performances. He came to every performance of hers that was humanly possible, even after she left New England to study theatre in New York City. When she was accepted into the two-year Circle in the Square theatre program, he told her he would do whatever it took to get her there so she could follow her dreams. He made it to every performance she had while in that program, even when he had to make a solo trip to do so. He timed his last trip to LA so that he could surprise Hannah: he picked her up from the airport, drove her to her hotel to get ready, and he took her to the red carpet event for the screening of her film, Quirewood! The Musical at the Awareness Film Festival. This was particularly meaningful, as it was not only Hannah’s first trip to the west coast, but the film in question took inspiration from Hannah’s life, and she credits her father for having saved her. Sean consistently encouraged Hannah to pursue her true passion. Several weeks before his death, when Hannah was talking to him about her chemistry studies, some common scientific ground between the two of them, he looked at her, sadly, and said, “I don’t want you to give up on your dreams.” She never will.
Sean’s infinite array of (admittedly quite bad) Dad Jokes endlessly annoyed Wendy, his Gracie Allen, and endlessly amused everyone else. He loved to laugh, and loved to share his joy and “cleverness” with others. Two days after his death, Hannah wrote, “That moment when you can’t help but laugh hysterically that physics killed your physicist father. He just couldn’t escape the gravity situation.” You can laugh. He laughed too. Or he would’ve, anyway.
You always knew how much Sean loved you. He was a stalwart support and champion of his family and their accomplishments. Wendy felt he was her safe harbor, the other part of herself. When Hannah was getting her ECT treatments, Sean would often take her in; he’d be the first familiar person she saw when she came to. It made one of the most traumatic experiences in her life more bearable. He didn’t understand what she was going through, but was always there for her, and always tried. When Heather was in the process of leaving an abusive partner (more than a decade ago now), he let her express her worries and her fears over the vast sum of money he lent them for their business. After listening quietly and attentively for over an hour, Sean finally spoke: “Heather, the money doesn’t matter. You are safe. That’s all that matters.” This has become an emblem for the family: we always knew we were loved and safe with Sean. You always knew you mattered. No matter what.
He enjoyed his sixteen months during his annual August vacation in his old sea captain’s home in Nova Scotia, and spent the time reading and resting and sharing meals and running and kayaking and working on the yard and on the house. He found great solace in working with his hands and restoring properties. He loved to travel and explore, recently touring England, Scotland, Germany, and the Netherlands. He also took trips to New York to watch Hannah’s performances and to Florida with Wendy. Sean deeply felt his Scottish heritage, and in an effort to more firmly connect his family to it too, he took Wendy, Heather, and Hannah on a summer 2013 trip to Salisbury, the Lake District, Edinburgh, Sterling, and the Isle of Skye to celebrate his 60th birthday. The trip remains one of the most special, foundational times in a long, loving family history.
Sean skydived with Wendy, Heather, and Hannah. He adored weekend hikes with Wendy. He still ran miles a day and lifted weights, right up until the accident. He loved strolling the beaches along the ocean in RI, NH, MA, ME, and NS. He could skip a mean rock: I once saw him skip a stone fourteen times in strong tidal surf.
Sean was known by his family as generous and loving. Whenever anyone needed anything, they could go to Sean for help. He admired loyalty above all else. To him, the rest of it didn’t matter if you weren’t honest, kind, and loyal.
Sean was astrophysicist to his core. A mere three weeks before the accident that took his life, he wrote, “In a sense, we do live forever. When our bodies cease, we deal with our remains in different ways, but ultimately our remains enter the ecosystem and become the building blocks of future populations. Our physical essence continues. If we have children, our DNA is passed on, as is our impact on the children we create. When the sun dies, it will become a red giant and ‘bake off’ all the life and life-by-products into the universe from which new stars will be born thus initiating a potential new cycle of life, which includes recycling us. So yes, we live on.” Dad, now you get to rejoin the very stars you so loved. But we miss you more terribly than you could ever know.
Please do not give flowers or other gifts. Instead, help us establish a scholarship in Sean’s name. He always said that the time he spent at Moses Brown School changed his life. He was passionate about mentoring women in the sciences. With that, we are starting a fund for an endowed annual scholarship in Sean’s name to support young women who want to study science. Please consider donating so that we can make this endowed scholarship a reality: donate https://www.mosesbrown.org/school/giving/, and under “In Memory Of” please add “For the scholarship fund for Dr. Sean J. McKenna.”
Services will be held at Christ Church in Andover, MA on Saturday, 11 January 2020 at 2 pm. All are welcome.
To send flowers to Dr. Sean Jeffrey McKenna's family, please visit our floral section.